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Kids on Film

Tale of Tears

'Education of Little Tree' nearly crushes viewers under the weight of poignancy.

January 29, 1998|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — In "The Education of Little Tree," an orphan (Joseph Ashton) learns to appreciate Native American ways from his maverick Tennessee mountain grandpa (James Cromwell) and Cherokee grandma (Tantoo Cardinal) before authorities place him in a harsh boarding school for Indian children. (Rated PG)

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As you might expect from a little-promoted, narrowly distributed film with the word "education" in the title, "The Education of Little Tree" hasn't packed large numbers of kids into theaters.

The few who came on a recent weekend were motivated mostly by their parents, who by and large hadn't heard much about it either but thought it might be a good alternative to overly hyped movies. What they discovered was an unusually sad movie that's often slow, but one they were mostly glad to have seen.

"Some parts were really grim and some parts were really fun," said 10-year-old Michael A. Walek. "It's a good movie. It's got a good lesson in it--you've got to follow your dreams and stuff and it doesn't matter what color your skin is. That's basically it."

The story opens in 1935 when 8-year-old Little Tree is taken--over the objections of his Aunt Martha--to live in the mountains with his grandparents. He adjusts quickly to a new world, lovingly filmed, of fog-shrouded hills, clear streams, wild animals and a Cherokee world view of interdependence with the natural world. His education also includes the art of illegal, backwoods whiskey-making, which he learns from his kindly grandpa, when and when not to use cuss words and that the shade of one's skin matters to not-so-kindly outsiders.

"I liked the fishing part," said Craig Morey, 8, of Irvine. "His grandfather was taking him fishing and instead of using fishing poles, they used their hands."

A nasty-looking rattlesnake made Michael squirm, and sensitive children could easily be upset by the death of a diseased calf or the eat-or-be-eaten life of the woods animals.

"I don't think younger kids would understand it as much as older kids," Michael said. "They might get bored with it and it might scare them." A hillbilly father, for instance, strikes his little girl for having accepted a gift of moccasins from Little Tree. "I don't think they would understand what was going on there and how they were being mean to the Indians and how they separated them from different classes and stuff, just because of their race," he said.

Informed of the grandfather's backwoods business, authorities place Little Tree in a boarding school, where Indians are forbidden to speak their language and must use Christian names.

When Little Tree honestly describes a picture of two deer mating, the teacher sends him to solitary confinement--a "jail" in kids' eyes--where he nearly loses his will to survive.

While these were tear-jerking scenes for some adults, the children interpreted them through the lenses of their own experience. Five-year-old Chanell Morey said, "The school was mean to him. He didn't get to play when the other kids were playing. And they gave him a haircut."

Michael said the movie ranked so high "sad-wise" that he wouldn't recommend it for one of his friends. "He cried in 'Titanic.' He wouldn't make it through this."

Those who do, like Craig, are left with one clear and simple message: "Indians are not treated fairly in the world."

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PARENTS' PERSPECTIVE: The movie may be too slow for 5-year-olds, said Paula Morey, but the lessons dovetailed with what her daughter had been learning in school recently about the Rev. Martin Luther King and were not over her head.

"It touched my heart," she said. "Now I want to read the book."

Janet Walek had bought the 1976 novel of the same name by Forrest Carter (a pseudonym), but regretted not reading it before seeing the movie.

"If I'd read the book, I could have comforted him a little more in the movie. . . . We kept saying, 'This is just a movie.' "

Nevertheless, she cried all the way through. "I have one hankie," she said, "and it's soaking wet."

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